Arthur Hailey: Technothriller Writer?

Generally speaking, alternate history questions about how some creative artist’s career could have gone differently are not my favorite thing. There are just too many inputs and inspirations, and one would be hard pressed to find something more volatile than popular culture tastes. That being said, I’ve found one author who I can definitely see sliding into a different genre if he’d come to fame 10-15 years later.

That author is Arthur Hailey, most famous for his novel Airport, which inspired the movie that spawned the entire disaster genre (and its parody in Airplane!). Hailey loved to write books that examined a complex thing (be it banks, airports, car factories, or what not) in amazing detail, before climaxing in some kind of crisis. He also loved technology to the point of taking too many futurists at face value (Passenger pods loaded into planes on conveyor belts!)

Hmmm, massively researched technical detail? A love of technology? That sounds like he’d be right at home with technothrillers.

In fact, I can so easily imagine Arthur Hailey’s Aircraft Carrier. The carrier and everything from the catapults to the air tasking order is described in minute detail. As is the drama surrounding members of the crew, which will consist of at least two middle-class Americans committing adultery. Then, in the final chapters of the book, the carrier will sail into action! But it won’t be a full on Fuldapocalyptic world war with the carrier fending off a hundred Tu-22s in the GIUK Gap while a nuclear sword of Damocles hangs over everyone’s head. Hailey just wasn’t that high stakes a writer, and his target audience probably wouldn’t go for something as tense as that. It would probably be something like El Dorado Canyon, probably against a fictional OPFOR country. The carrier accomplishes its mission, but not before a million more “I know the exact designation of a Scud TEL” infodumps are launched and at least one of the adulterers is blown up.

Look, I didn’t say it was going to be a good technothriller.

Indeed, as much as Clancy and Bond’s books may have been dated and rendered less potent by their technology becoming considerably less novel, Hailey’s have aged far worse. And I’m not (just) talking about their culture and characterization. Their entire gimmick is “this is a thing.” And if you already have the slightest familiarity with that thing in ways that audiences in the 1960s and 1970s did not, the books become empty clunkfests.

Still, it’s very easy to see the success of someone who wrote in a very similar style (Airport is basically a peacetime technothriller, after all) translating to something else down the road. That’s the fun of alternate history.

The Ameriyak That Never Was

Soviet airliners have an understandably poor reputation and record. It’s gotten to the point where one should be fair and point out that their less than ideal safety record was more to the issues with infrastructure and human resources and less to the mechanical design of the aircraft themselves. But it isn’t excessive criticism to point out that in spite of their rough-field capability, they were fuel-inefficient, uncomfortable, and only able to succeed in a politically closed field.

But there were still some diamonds in the rough, and not just giants like the Antonov beasts. The three-engined Yak-40 was interesting for being a pioneer in the field of light regional jets when the rest of the world was still using propeller planes for that role.

Which leads to a detente-era footnote: The plans to build and sell a version of the Codling (yes, that was its reporting name) in America. Amazingly, this was not a project from the legendarily Kremlin-friendly Armand Hammer. But it could have been. The potential plants were located in the depressed locations of Youngstown and Niagara Falls. The engines and avionics would be replaced with western models. A memo in the White House of all places (pgs 22-26) details the lofty goals for the LC-3, as it was planned to be called.

Of course, the deal unsurprisingly fell through. But it’s still an interesting piece of aircraft history. As is, it was the first Soviet civilian aircraft to attract legitimate attention from western airlines. And the irony of an airplane designed by a communist state being used to ferry rich private-sector VIPs to their vacations in Aspen is too fun not to smile at.

Review: Red Front

Red Front

The conventional Fuldapocalypse begins in earnest with Red Front, the second book in the Iron Crucible series. After the Yugoslav opening act in the previous entry , this follows the war everywhere from the Atlantic to… outer space. Author T. K Blackwood continues a solid Bond/Red Storm Rising style narrative in this installment.

This has the issues that a big perspective WWIII has, but it also has the strengths, and Blackwood succeeds in a genre that’s incredibly difficult to write well. The book ends on a cliffhanger, but it’s not an unsatsifying one. With a ton of varied battles in a type of novel that doesn’t come along very often, I can say that I highly recommend this to fans of the “conventional WW3” genre.

The Nuclear Assumptions

The one thing going in the would-be nuclear terrorists favor is that nuclear weapons have a lot of “slack” built into their design. IE, they can be ridiculously “inefficient” and still be devastating. Even a rough-implosion sub-kiloton warhead is still a much hotter, radioactive version of this:

But that’s it. Everything else works against them. There’s a lot of attention paid to nuclear material ever since the 1940s for obvious reasons. The materials require specialized personnel and are hazardous (radiation is the least of the worries-both uranium and plutonium are extremely flammable, for one). I used the analogy of Y2K in my review of the best book on the subject that I’ve read.

While reading Brian Michael Jenkins’ own book, one passage jumped at me. This was Jenkins, a renowned terrorism and security expert, talking about how the yields increased.

We have too easily slid from the scientists’ first estimates of terrorist nuclear devices with yields likely to be in the tenths of a kiloton range to a now-assumed standard of a ten-kiloton terrorist bomb. The worst case has become the baseline assessment.

-Brian Michael Jenkins. Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? (Kindle Locations 3611-3612). Kindle Edition.

And yet, both seem valid. Ten kilotons is slightly less than Little Boy, an extremely simple “bang two chunks of HEU together” design whose biggest limiter is that it requires a lot of fissile material. Less than a kiloton is what’s often theorized for a very basic implosion design, necessary with plutonium as the explosive material. Since in the 1970s there was justified fear around the glut of plutonium, that is not an unreasonable assumption. Likewise, it’s also not unreasonable to assume that with access to Little Boy levels of material (Cold War “Surplus”?) one could make a Little Boy level bomb.

There are no real case studies to go on. Aum Shinrikyo conducted the only known and most credible attempt to acquire nuclear weapons by a terror group. It never got beyond basic theoretical designs, as has every other terror daydream. With a (thankful) sample size of zero, all planners can do is base the possibilities on theory.

Review: The Gamekeeper’s Night Dog

The Gamekeeper’s Night Dog

David Putnam’s The Gamekeeper’s Night Dog is one of the weirdest alternate history novels I’ve read. And yes, I have read every single Kirov novel. None comes close to this… thing. Really, to talk about it in conventional literary terms is almost beside the point. It’s middling in terms of quality and is a little too bloated, but why talk about that when you have such a befuddling premise?

See, in the 1890s, protagonist David Banner (no relation to the Hulk) has the Judeo-Christian God appear in a dream from His home in the black hole in the center of the Milky Way. A nightmare scenario (aka actual history) awaits if the last of the classic English Bulldogs (always capitalized in the book) goes extinct. There’s exposition where World War I, II, and even III is shown, with animal cruelty activists being portrayed as the equals of history’s worst monsters.

Also, apparently the divine value of a nation comes from the kind of dog that it has. Yes, it’s a weird book. Anyway, man and dog alike uplift the world, fight a very different Boer War, and continue to battle in an ahead-of-its-time World War I. We get loving depictions of bulldogs ripping men and animals to pieces. In fact, most of it is basically just bulldogs in “action”. The question remains: How do you even judge this book? My answer is simple. You can’t. It is not a novel so much as a very bizarre artifact.

The Mountain Flip Flop

Despite otherwise having little in common save for lots of mountains, Switzerland and Afghanistan have a shared reputation in popular culture as being impregnable, untameable countries. Which led me to go: What if circumstances flip-flopped their history and outcomes?

In Central Asia, a Dari-speaking nation arises in the mountains of what we’d call northern and central Afghanistan. Close to many major trade routes, it takes advantage of its geographic security and reputation for studious neutrality to develop a thriving financial sector. This and the wealth generated by it enable this to develop a reputation for exporting luxury, advanced artisanal goods as well. Meanwhile in Europe, an artificial clump of different ethnicities in the Alps becomes a weak, tumultuous, war-torn “western Yugoslavia”.

Yes, it’s a very soft alternate history. But it’s the kind of thing that alternate history was made for, and it’d work great as a story’s setting.

Review: In The Balance

Worldwar: In The Balance

In 1994, Harry Turtledove decided to run with what can rationally and scientifically be called one of the most awesome fictional concepts ever: Aliens invade during World War II. The opening book, In The Balance, starts things off with a bang.

A group of lizard-aliens known only as “The Race” with juuust the right amount of technological balancing to make for a great story attack a humanity that’s stronger and more advanced than anticipated. While the issues Turtledove has with long series (pacing, repetition, etc…) appear even during this book, they’re not deal-breakers. And the weaknesses are more than made up for by the amazing first impression the book makes.

If you like alternate history, science fiction, World War II, or just strange concepts in general, this is worth checking out.